Memory of a Certain Time

Chris Marker

Chris Marker’s unique observations of the world left a lasting influence on how we think about the relationship between photography, cinema, and memory. Presented in conjunction with a mini-retrospective of the artist’s films and a mural installation, Memory of a Certain Time brings together selections from several distinct but related series of still images that span more than half a century. Following Marker’s death in 2012, these presentations provide a fitting occasion to reflect on the legacy of a visionary experimental filmmaker, photographer, writer, and multimedia artist.

Marker took photographs throughout his career, but they were largely unknown beyond their use in his films and multimedia projects. His landmark dystopian short film, La Jetée (1963), was composed almost entirely from stills, the first 14 of which are presented on the façade of TIFF Bell Lightbox. For decades, Marker rejected opportunities to exhibit his photographs, until finally persuaded by curator Bill Horrigan. His first exhibition, Staring Back, from which Memory of a Certain Time is in part culled, was presented at the Wexner Center for the Arts in 2007.

Marker’s left-wing politics fuelled his impulse to document demonstrations, which began in 1962 at the anti-war protest in Paris that became known as the Charonne Massacre. Recalling this event, which led to the tragic deaths of eight people at the metro station, Marker wrote, “It’s there that for the first time, in face of senseless police brutality, I decided to use my 16mm camera as a substitute for the gun my primary instincts would have preferred.” Triggered by this memory, Marker embarked upon an archeological investigation into images from his past, which form a life-story that extends beyond the overtly political. This exhibition begins with the series Beast of…, photographs of animals that give an intimate sense of Marker’s view of humanity, glimpsed through less guarded creatures.

Marker experimented with digital technology to break down the distinctions between still photography and cinema. Through a process he called “superliminal,” Marker identified the decisive shot out of many near-identical images captured by the flow of film and video. While a number of his iconic moving-image projects are recalled here, Marker deliberately obscured whether these photographs were captured using a motion or still camera by converting each image into a digital format.

Memory of a Certain Time includes five series organized by Marker’s themes, which highlight his unique perspective and everyday life. I Stare 1 comprises an arrangement of images captured at protests between 1962 and 2006. These black-and-white photographs chronicle Marker through the politics that motivated him, projecting a sense of the timelessness of civil unrest. They Stare provides a counterpoint, mostly devoid of politics, featuring only subjects who are gazing directly at the photographer. Famously recluse, Marker rarely allowed himself to be photographed; these potent, posed black-and-white portraits and candid street shots of subjects returning his gaze provide a willfully incomplete self-portrait.

Taking a different tact but nonetheless sketching an image of Marker from behind his lens, I Stare 2 includes a wide-ranging collection of images in which the subject’s eyes are not fixed on the camera. Yet like They Stare, these scenes give a sense of Marker’s travels around the world, dating back to the 1950s. Colleagues, actors, and renowned and anonymous individuals populate Marker’s photographs, evoking his films, videos, and published materials.

Based in Paris, the metro became a recurrent source of intrigue for Marker and he furtively documented people in the stations and crowded quarters of the trains. Passengers (2008–10), his first and only series of colour photographs, is displayed densely here to reflect the intimacies he avoided with others yet felt compelled to explore. Marker’s most fluid manipulation of imagery, through what he called “the jujucraft of Photoshop and Painter,” gives these works an otherworldly presence.

Memory’s relationship to the image is a topic that captivated Marker throughout his career. His 1962 photograph documenting mourners of the Charonne metro station massacre at the Place de la République is remembered through a 2002 photograph captured in the same spot at another demonstration. Marker said, of his impulse to pair the images, “Within these few inches, 40 years of my life.” Using the still photograph as his point of reference, Marker delved through the archive of his enduring career, recalling before us the definitive moments that amount to a life lived behind the camera. 

Organized with TIFF.